Product developers shifting food, beverage R&D during COVID-19 impact – podcast

A la Carte Connections owner and food scientist Rachel Zemser spoke with Food & Beverage Insider editor in chief Judie Bizzozero to discuss how product developers are adopting a new at-home R&D model during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Judie Bizzozero, Content Director

April 28, 2020

The food and beverage industry is in a state of constant evolution, which means brands not only must predict market trends and consumer demands but also have the ability to formulate healthy products. However, the Coronavirus outbreak has thrown a big wrench into the food and beverage sector and we are witnessing a fundamental shift in the business model. The pandemic is touching every aspect of the food market—from the farmers, the ingredient supply chain, processors, manufacturers and distribution. Industry trade shows and events have been canceled or postponed, and many of those events are ingredient-centric, which is the lifeblood of food and beverage innovation equation.

During this Food & Beverage Insider Podcast, Judie Bizzozero, editor in chief, is joined by Rachel Zemser, CFS, CCS, MS, to discuss how food and beverage product developers are adopting a new at-home R&D model during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key insights include:

  • How industry is adapting to a new set of rules in the face of COVID-19.

  • How ingredient suppliers are working with food scientists and consultants to deliver ingredients in a timely manner.

  • The necessary tools food scientists need to continue their important work.

  • How companies are successfully shifting to virtual platforms for client meetings, tastings, trade shows, etc.

  • Whether the lasting effects of COVID-19 will change the in-person aspect of food and beverage product development.

Links and resources:

Got feedback? Email Judie at [email protected], or tweet to @FoodBevINSIDER

Podcast transcript

Judie Bizzozero, editor in chief, Food & Beverage Insider: Hi, I'm Judie and welcome to another edition of Food & Beverage Insider podcast. With me on the phone today I have Rachel Zemser who is a certified food scientist and culinary scientist and owner of the food science consultancy A La Carte Connections. She’s also food chemistry adjunct professor at San Francisco State University and a frequent speaker at our SupplySide shows. Rachel, thank you so much for joining me today.

Rachel Zemser, CFS, CCS, MS, and owner of A La Carte Connections: It's great to be here.

Bizzozero: Today we are going to be talking about a COVID-19, which obviously is a topic that has been in the headlines for months and will probably continue to be so. Businesses of all types are being negatively impacted by the Coronavirus outbreak, and food and beverage industry is not immune. It seems we are witnessing a fundamental shift in the business model, and this pandemic is touching every aspect of the food market—from the farmers, the ingredient supply chain, processors, manufacturers and distribution. We’ve also had many important industry trade shows and events canceled or postponed due to COVID19. And many of those events are ingredient-centric, which is the lifeblood of food and beverage product equation. This must be incredibly frustrating for you as a food scientist.

Zemser: It's actually a very sad year for myself and all the other food scientists who love and going to all of all of the trade shows out there we need these trade shows to be able to interact with our ingredient suppliers and to learn about what's new and what are the hot topics and what technology is emerging and so on. So yeah, it's a difficult year that we have to miss out on all these shows, but I think it'll just make us appreciate the shows even more when we get to go back to them once, everything reopens.

Bizzozero: So, this shift. As a food scientist, I mean we need food. You are still developing new prototypes, new products, you're working with companies large and small. How has this really affected your day-to-day business?

Zemser: So, you know, it's interesting, because when the pandemic began, I really thought that I would see a huge decrease in work. I thought maybe you know companies wouldn't come to me. Maybe they would just stop all new product development, but that has not really been the case. I haven’t probably had as many inquiries from the smaller startups that I normally have, but some of my regulars are still coming around and they still want to do R&D with me and have me make up prototypes and samples. I feel like a lot of other food companies, especially companies that make shelf stable, ready-to-eat products are probably still pretty busy and they probably still have a lot of work to do because that industry is actually doing pretty well. People are buying shelf- stable snacks and products and energy bars and candy and beverages. In case you know we all have to go underground for a year … like we all want to stock up on everything. So, we are all making these products. We are continuing to make these products.


Bizzozero: So, to make these products you need ingredients. How are you getting your hands on these ingredients? What are the challenges that you're facing in terms of supply chain, so to speak?

Zemser: Yeah, so as a consultant I definitely rely very heavily on ingredient suppliers in all areas of the ingredient world. You know, I'm constantly requesting flavors and starches and stabilizers and meat analogues, protein powders. So far, I've actually found that all of the ingredients suppliers are still are still providing. The reps are getting back to me and you know, they're sending me samples. It's not quite as fast as normal, but that's fine and I usually just let my customers know it may be an extra week before I get this in, but overall, you know, in my conversations with the ingredient suppliers they have been telling me that they are still running. They still have some people in-house, just not as many. There may be two people in the shipping department instead of the usual 10 so it takes a little longer. But I think the ingredient suppliers are still being great and very proactive at following up and getting back to me and getting me everything I need. So that's been really good because I've definitely been needing a lot of a lot of different flavors and different ingredients to get my work done.

Bizzozero: What other tools do you rely on as a food scientist that maybe you took for granted in the pre-COVID-19 days or has that even changed?

Zemser: I've been a consultant for a long time and I've always had a workspace to do my R&D in so for me not a whole lot's changed. However, I have a lot of food science friends who work in, you know, in in companies that have all kinds of other people there like you know with sales reps and R&D teams and laboratories and pilot plants and things like that. And I know that a lot of those food scientist have had to work from home. So, I think that that while I have not had a lot of those issues, I've been trying to give them some advice on what types of tools they should have that will allow them to continue doing their R&D in a home setting. I actually put together a little list of just the basics. As a food scientist, especially, a product developer, I don't need a gas chromatograph or any pieces of extremely expensive large equipment filling up rooms. I really just need the basics to do formulation and R&D work … kitchen-type tools … really just slightly more sophisticated tools. If someone has a scale—a really good scale that goes out to the point 100th decimal point and that usually can weigh up to 500 or 1000 grams, that's key. That's probably the most important thing that a food scientist could have at home to keep on doing the R&D and everything else it can really be bought online or provided by the company, including things like disposable plastic pipettes, a pH meter, a refractometer, lots of benchtop models for those that are just a couple $100 apiece. You know having some boxes and ice packs for shipping out samples quickly. So, it's really quite doable for food scientist to work from home if they have enough space to do it in. I know that a lot of food companies are usually located in areas that are much more affordable to live in than the Bay Area, so most people live in probably larger houses than I do and have either a basement or a corner of a garage or a portion of the kitchen that they can just kind of clear out and set up for their own experimentation.

Bizzozero: OK, great and thank you for what you're doing and thank you to the thousands of others like yourself that are keeping our industry rolling. The customers that you're working with, that you are consulting with, are they requesting any particular type of food category whether it be a nutrition bar, a snack, a protein shake? Have you seen any of those requests shift to maybe foods or beverages with more immunity properties, more weight management? I know that there's a lot of eating going on at home and a lot of alcohol consumption. I'm just wondering if you've seen a shift in the patterns of requests that you're getting from your customers?

Zemser: I haven't really seen any big shifts to products that would somehow be more aligned with what's going on right now, but I am seeing you know probably the trends of just looking for more shelf-stable healthy, on-the-go products that have a long shelf life. You know that continues to be a pretty popular request more than ever. Definitely seeing a lot more requests of can you put more caffeine in this. That’s been a very big trend—jacking up the food with lots of extra caffeine. I don't know where that came from, but I guess people just don't necessarily want to drink the caffeine or they don't want super high- sugar caffeinated drinks they want more healthy caffeinated type products like caffeine and energy bars that kind of thing.

Bizzozero: What else was on your list of things to chat about?

Zemser: I just wanted to relay the concept that food science work can be done at home, and suppliers are out there and they're ready to provide ingredients to us. While there's a bit of a slowdown, it's not that slow. It’s maybe like you need to kind of balance in an extra week or so to get things to arrive when you need them. I think that the R&D work can be done off-site. As a consultant I've always relied on things like FedEx and UPS shipping to get things to the client quickly and that's been as strong as ever. UPS is coming on time and they're picking up and FedEx and all the other carriers picking up packages. You don't have to get together with the sales team and the marketing team. There doesn't have to be like 30 people in the room tasting the product together. The products can be sent out to 10 different people and then we can all meet on Zoom and just have a group tasting together but all in our own location. I've had a couple of meetings like that and that's probably one of the changes that I've been getting used to. I think that when the pandemic is over, I'm not going always feel the need to travel as much as I used to the customer for on-site tastings together. There's no reason to spend thousands of dollars to meet in person with someone to taste a slice of pizza or to taste a beverage. I can just overnight it for $100, and we can just taste it together online. I have samples on my end and they have samples on their end and we can all see each other’s faces.  You know that's something that has definitely been a change and I think that that change could last a little longer after everything is over. We may not need to travel as much anymore/

Bizzozero: Yeah, I totally agree. I think that this is a completely new way of everyone doing business on a global level and it will be interesting to see how the trade shows play out in the next you know let's say six months. Kudos to what you're doing, and you are one of the lifeblood of this food and beverage industry and we appreciate everything that you do.

Zemser: Yeah, no and I appreciate all the suppliers coming through for us. I don't know how other larger companies are operating right now, but I'm sure if the suppliers are giving me, a consultant, the same love and attention as they've always given me, they must be giving the same to all the Krafts, Nabiscos, Unilevers and larger companies that are actually buying lots of ingredients for production. I usually just request samples, but everybody's been great. I mean all of the external resources are there to keep product development going and all the different parts of the food industry.

Bizzozero: I think a lot of the companies are working; even competitors are working together to join forces and help other companies get through this blip on the radar. You know we're all in this to make better food for more people and leave this planet in a better place. With that, thank you so much for being with me here on the phone and hopefully I'll get to see you in person soon. Again, as you said, product development will go on; it is going on and it's just going on and in a different manner than what we're used to.

Zemser: Absolutely, and it can be done at home and the work can just keep on going with minimal investments.

Bizzozero: Awesome, thank you so much Rachel and we look forward to seeing you soon.

About the Author(s)

Judie Bizzozero

Content Director, Informa Markets Health & Nutrition

Judie Bizzozero oversees food and beverage content strategy and development for the Health & Nutrition group at Informa Markets (which acquired VIRGO in 2014), including the Food & Beverage Insider, Natural Products Insider and SupplySide/Food ingredients North America brands. She reports on market trends, science-based ingredients, and challenges and solutions in the development of healthy foods and beverages. Bizzozero graduated from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University in 1987 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism.

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